Framing Science in Canada
25 Jun, 2007 04:42 pm
For the third year running, the after-dinner speaker at DAMOP was a politician-- a Canadian one, this time, former MP Preston Manning (who also has his own official web site). I was a little surprised to see him described as a "right-wing populist" because he sounded very reasonable, but on reflection, this is Canada, and a right-wing populist Canadian probably maps to a moderate Democrat in the US.
His talk was on "the importance of scientists being able to communicate with politicians and the public, and how we can do a better job at such communications." In other words, as Nathan Lundblad noted, he was talking about framing science. I wasn't wildly enthusiastic about the idea of hearing such a talk, but he actually did a pretty good job with the subject, with one glaring exception.
The most complete of the example anecdotes (and keep in mind, I'm writing this two days later from memory) concerned a tour given to a bunch of politicians touring a reactor facility. The physicist doing the presentation started off by explaining what a neutron is, and then how a reactor works to produce neutrons, then how they make a beam of neutrons, and only then how they use neutron scattering to study material properties. It sounded like a perfectly good scientific presentation, but Manning said that it was absolutely horrible for an audience of politicians-- the introductory material took so long that they had tuned out completely by the time they got to the concrete applications.
Had he been doing it, he said, he would've started out by talking about material stress. He would've showed pictures of materials failing under stress-- bridges collapsing, mechanical parts failing and, this being Canada, hockey sticks snapping in playoff games. He would've said that the study of material structure with neutron diffraction can benefit the public by helping us to understand the effects of stress on materials. If we understand the forces holding materials together, we can understand how they fail, and that helps us build better bridges and win hockey games. And that's why it's important to fund scientific research using neutron beams.
He made the same basic point multiple times-- the important thing to do when talking to politicians, he said, is to make sure that the concrete public benefit is presented clearly, and right up front. That's the thing that will help them win elections, so that's what you need to emphasize. It's not the same as talking to a scientific audience-- politicians are very focussed on political issues, and if you want to get them to support science, you need to put it in a political context.
He was also careful to note that this isn't just a matter of making extravagent claims. It would be ridiculous to claim that a reactor facility will lead directly to better hockey sticks, or that an electron microscope will cure the bird flu, but the point that scientists should be making is that the basic research done at these facilities is an essential component of the larger process that leads to better hockey sticks and avian flu vaccines. We need to be able to study materials at very small length scales, and look at viruses in detail in order to understand how they work. Without that, the people who make the actual materials and vaccines don't have the information to do their jobs.
The one big flaw in his talk, ironically, was a matter of poor framing: He spoke to a room full of physicists without using any visual aids whatsoever. The talk would've been vastly improved by the addition of some pictures-- instead, he spoke in front of the blank video screens left at the end of the previous speaker's PowerPoint slides.
Which just goes to show that framing goes both ways-- scientists need to change their mode of speaking to effectively reach politicians, and politicians should change their mode of speaking in order to more effectively reach scientists. Of course, it's a little more important for the scientists than the politicians-- the politicians already have money, while the scientists need money...
Originally posted at Uncertain principles